Sunday, June 30, 2013

Ethical Purchasing – Are The Boundaries Being Confused?

(The following is a guest post from Grumpy Old Vegan. I approached him yesterday about elaborating upon a few posts he's recently made on his Facebook page concerning boycott campaigns being mounted by vegans against certain plant-based ingredients or products. He kindly agreed to do write a piece for My Face Is on Fire. Here it is below.)

"Ethical Purchasing – Are The Boundaries Being Confused?"

As we know, the primary purpose of veganism as the moral baseline of animal rights is to adopt a way of life which avoids, as far as is practicably possible, involvement in any form of exploitation of nonhuman animals. With around 60 billion animals being exploited annually in the meat, dairy and egg production industries it is hardly surprising that food tends to be the main focus of veganism and vegans are not only concerned with ensuring that no animal products are included in their diet but also naturally inclined to consider related issues such as the environmental impact of food production and its effect on wildlife, support for fair trade agriculture, GM crops and ethical purchasing of manufactured food products.

However, there appears to be an increasing tendency for those with a particular interest in such issues, often initiating campaigns to support their views, to imply that certain non-animal food products are ‘not vegan’ and that those using them are ‘unvegan’. I will give two examples to illustrate the point and explain why such implications could be problematic.

Firstly, palm oil. While the destruction of Indonesian rainforests for palm plantations is undoubtedly an environmental and ecological disaster as are its consequences to wildlife, palm oil is clearly not an animal product. Since it is made from the nuts and fruit of the palm and no animals are directly exploited in the process it is a vegan product. Indeed, it is the forest itself being exploited with the timber gathered from clearances also providing a valuable cash crop. If we are concerned about any impacts on wild animals from palm oil production, is there any substantive moral reason why we should not be equally concerned with, for example, the clearance of Brazilian rainforest to grow soybeans or the impact of plant agriculture on small mammals (often used as a reason to debunk veganism)? In addition, most of the campaigns relating to palm oil are speciesist. There are many species affected by rainforest clearance but they rarely get a mention, orangutans being the focus. Presumably this is because they are ‘like us’, absolutely no reason to give them moral precedence over other species. What vegans should be doing is educating others to reject speciesism and consider all animals when considering their position on ethical consumption. 

The use of palm oil is now almost endemic and it is included as an ingredient in a vast number of products, both vegan and non-vegan. This has given rise to the suggestion that a number of specifically named vegan products containing palm oil should be avoided, problematic for similar reasons to those given in summary below.

Secondly, avoiding vegan products supplied by companies associated with non-vegan products. Please note, this is a very different situation from avoiding companies involved in direct exploitation such as those which test on animals. As an example I will cite the recent widely-circulated suggestion that vegans should avoid ‘Silk’ soya products because the brand is now owned by Dean Foods, the largest dairy producer in the US. In fact, ‘Silk’ is an Alpro brand and Alpro as a company was purchased by Dean Foods in 2009. Any ‘boycott’ would therefore necessarily need to include all Alpro products and other brands such as ‘Provamel’.

In the case of large corporations, expecting ethical purchasing decisions (or even widespread boycotts) to have any economic impact on them is optimistic in the extreme. Even if Dean Foods stopped manufacturing vegan products altogether it would have no impact on the volume or profitability of their dairy production because the demand would still exist. Surely animals would be better served by vegans supporting such brands and convincing non-vegans to switch from dairy and use them? In addition, how can we reasonably expect a demand-driven industry to continue to produce existing vegan products and introduce more vegan alternatives if vegans themselves start avoidingthem? If we managed to unravel all the corporate entanglements out there we would surely find ourselves with a very long list of companies and products to avoid! Also, where is the line drawn? For example, do we avoid stores which sell animal products in addition to vegan products? How is this issue rationalised it on a general, rather than personal, basis?

In summary, while issues such as those mentioned undoubtedly provide information (which is valuable), the implication that ‘this is what vegans do’ makes veganism seem rather more complicated than it actually is, particularly to non-vegans who already often regard going vegan as difficult. Accusations that vegans who choose not to comply with the suggested actions are ‘not vegans’ are particularly distasteful.

We should be making it as easy as possible for non-vegans to switch in the first instance because this is the only way that demand for animal products will reduce. The basic tenets of veganism are not complicated so let us not inhibit vegan education by attaching a list of supplementary ‘rules and regulations’ to the fundamental message. Help people to stop consuming animal products first then give them the information to adjust their lives according to their individual circumstances and personal views but without turning information into mandatory requirements.


HappyGuy said...

Thank you for posting this.

I think the "Ethical purchasing" fiasco, as illustrated in your post, is like a red herring against veganism. I've seen the palm oil thing brought up many times as an attack against my veganism and it really is a distraction from the real issues of animal exploitation. It's like the whole "plants feel pain" argument - just a red herring.

Heather Grace said...

If I choose to avoid products made with palm oil, how is that a bad thing? Just because I can't do it all does not mean I should do nothing.

Mylène said...

Heather, it's not a "bad" thing at all. There are two things that are problematic. One is that some vegans are insisting that palm oil is not vegan and using this to pressure other vegans to join in boycotting companies which use palm oil. I had a MFIoF reader on my Facebook page flip out upon finding out that Daiya wedges contain palm oil, for instance, declaring that she'll never have it again, when in fact Daiya sources its palm oil from Brazil (where there are no orangutans) in a closely-monitored sustainable manner, so the company is coming under attack for no reason whatsoever. Another thing that is problematic is when waging the campaign publicly and singling out the palm oil/orangutan issue but not talking about other forms of consumption where animals are exploited or having their habitats destroyed, it sends a message to the public that orangutans are more significant than any of the species of other animals whose lives are also disrupted thanks to human agriculture.

It's not a bad thing to avoid palm oil or to avoid sweatshop labour, to avoid coffee that hasn't been grown and gathered organically and according to fair trade standards, etc. But not doing so isn't "un-vegan" and focusing on one single issue while not addressing any of the others makes it seem more important. We need to educate people about speciesism and to ask them to reject all animal exploitation -- not just that of orangutans (or whales, or seal pups and so on).

Nadine said...

Great post. It's not a vegan issue, it's an economic and ecology issue that affects millions of animals, plants and humans. I get that people want to be mindful of their consumption, but this most certainly does not present any barriers to veganism and those who use it as such clearly don't want to consider veganism in the first place. Thanks for covering his issue.

Alistair MacLeod said...

"Since it is made from the nuts and fruit of the palm and no animals are directly exploited in the process it is a vegan product"

Wrong, at least in some cases.

I lived in a palm oil plantation in Mexico, and the palms were harvested using a donkey. The farmers also used horses to get around the plantation.

See here: